Victoria Ross is a recent Bachelor of Commerce graduate from the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary. The vision for her social enterprise aGRO Systems Inc., (aGRO) started with Victoria’s childhood memories growing up on a beef cattle ranch under the care of her dad John. Victoria grew a love for environmentalism and caring for people, plants and animals, also gaining a great respect for sustainable agriculture and the “workingman”. aGRO is dedicated to improving the profitability and sustainability of small-scale agriculture producers and processors through optimizing the overlooked wealth made by nature.
aGRO specializes in crafting affordable high-quality fertilizer and feed products for livestock and poultry producers. Simultaneously it provides a sustainable waste management service for microbreweries to dispose of spent grain and water by-products. The company aims to promote local jobs as it expands its own operation, but by also promoting the growth of breweries and small-scale farms run by hardworking Canadians. aGRO uses the spent grain waste from breweries and repurposes it into a feed to be used by livestock and poultry producers–closing the loop as the grain is brought from the farm to the brewery and then again back to the farm as a feed source for animals.
When one hears “entrepreneur”, I’m sure the descriptions of trailblazer, problem-solver, innovator or risk-taker pop into the listener’s head. It becomes a description for someone who is brave and ready slay the dragon but also prepared to be imprisoned by the belly of the beast and make their way out to try again. It means never giving up, fail forward, solve the problem, and make a difference—create real change.
With these admirable traits, who wouldn’t want to be considered an entrepreneur?
The term entrepreneur defined by Merriam-Webster simply regards it as “one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise”—from my perspective that seems like every type of business owner there is whether it’s a farmer in rural Alberta or an executive of an international oil firm based in Saudi Arabia. However, with all the buzz around entrepreneurship, the focus of this term has shifted and there has been a clear distinction between the literal definition of entrepreneur and what it means for someone to be an entrepreneur. While I am not suggesting that these descriptors are incorrect, I am becoming concerned that as this focus on entrepreneurship and being an entrepreneur gains steam, the Calgary market is being saturated with advice, events and lessons from “experts/ gurus” who may not have earned their stripes.
As I develop my own venture and learn more about the Calgary entrepreneurship community with limited time and resources, I am finding that it is easy to become overwhelmed by the advice given and that it can be difficult to make your way through the noise to gather the learnings that are key to moving your venture forward. There are several people who talk the talk about entrepreneurial practices but fail to walk the walk they preach. I am concerned that the message being conveyed focuses heavily on product development and ignores the importance of personal development and habitual practice. For example, while many programs I have participated in focus on developing a clear problem solution fit and the development of a product that satisfies early adopter’s needs, little thought, or time is given to educating the entrepreneur in ways that will enable them to execute their idea.
Part of what I have learned while starting my own company are mindsets and habits including, failing forward, listening to others—criticism and all—building empathy, embracing the adoption curve, the practice of productive paranoia and to be frugal with time and money. I think these guides that affect you as individual, enable you to succeed and move your idea forward more than any seminar on product market fit. As I continue to work on my own company, the importance of this type of introspection is becoming more evident for me as an entrepreneur. I believe all entrepreneurs need to have a clear understanding of whom they are and how they interact with others—asking the questions: what are my flaws? What do I do well? What can I do better? In my experience there are few programs, incubators, and curriculums that teach these habits or practices—and in my opinion—asking these questions and understanding the mindsets are what separates a traditional business owner or self-proclaimed entrepreneur from the real deal.
I have been fortunate enough to take part in the Trico Foundation’s summer student program this year and it has had a huge emphasis on developing personal habits and bringing awareness to my cognitive biases. As a result, I have had more traction in the last two months with them then I have had in the previous two years of accessing other supports. While Trico Foundation specializes specifically in the area of social entrepreneurship, the idea of the “key mindsets” they share can be applicable to anyone wanting to be involved in or out of the entrepreneurial space. Over the summer I have seen the overwhelming number of opportunities in my own journey as a chance to embrace a number of these mindsets. For example, I understand that my time is valuable, and it is important to be frugal with how I make use of it, therefore I have become more discerning about the entrepreneurial events I attend to assure that the speaker and focus aligns with my needs.
Another mindset that has resonated with me is the idea of embracing “Productive Paranoia”—think about why an idea, task or action of your business venture may fail and working backwards to discover why it would have failed. Another way of putting it, is think about the worst-case scenario and develop a plan that would prevent that scenario from occurring. What I enjoyed most about this is that it forced me to acknowledge the negative “what-ifs” that could occur within my company. This enabled me to take my head out of the sand and confront the potential issues head on—finally embracing the uncertainty of the risks I have been taking, and alleviating anxieties I had. I am amazed by the amount of progress that can be made once you understand the worst possible thing that could happen and can personally make a definitive decision with no regret because you have fully considered the pros and cons.
In congruence of how productive paranoia helps you make a definitive decision, I have learned that another mindset taught at Trico Foundation is pivotal—own my journey—take responsibility for those decisions you have made and prepare to deal with the consequences in stride. In my experience, I have found that rather than taking every bit of advice you are given by ‘experts’ it is core that you must understand yourself and embrace a variety of entrepreneurial mindsets. You will then be better prepared to tackle the problem your venture has set out to solve and ready to ask questions needing answers from the right people. As the Trico Foundation team often coaches, it becomes less about one path being right or wrong but more importantly, that you are able to understand your options/ routes which will allow you to make the decision that best aligns with your goals.
If you are interested in becoming an entrepreneur and learning more about the mindsets that I mentioned above, please read the 6 Key Mindsets of Social Entrepreneurship (& Entrepreneurship & Changemaking) from the Trico Foundation. If you are looking for more curriculum, please visit failingforward.ca created by instructor Houston and Rosalynn Peschl at the University of Calgary who focuses on teaching other entrepreneurial mindsets and understanding team dynamics for new companies.